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“Urban Exodus” as an Extension of the Rentier Sector

In the French media, the increasingly recurrent topic of urban exodus has been portrayed as one of the consequences the Covid‑19 pandemic. Aurélie Delage and Max Rousseau, however, instead perceive a “relocation of capital” maintained by media discourse.

“There’s nothing left to sell.” Heard from the mouths of rural mayors and real estate agents at the end of the summer of 2020, this phrase is taken up like an antiphon as clear proof of the “urban exodus.” If the theme of rural reinvestment had been rising for some years against a backdrop of anti-metropolitan discourse (Halbert, Pinson, Sala Pala 2021), the experience of confinement has brutally accelerated it, with literary and journalistic narratives recounting the wondrous discovery of the peaceful countryside. From the outset, this rural vision proved highly confrontational. The rapid spread on social networks of the slogan #guillotine2020 was one reaction to the romanticized vision of confinement produced by literary stars from their second homes, at a time when living conditions in working-class neighborhoods were deteriorating. But these reactions did little to prevent the story of the urban exodus from continuing to propagate in the media, notably through the distorting prism of the "teleworker in the fields", as the delay in obtaining the traditional demographic data needed to objectify the process was further increased by the pandemic. The figure of the "gentleman farmer", having acquired several estates in which he lives in multi-residence, then spread in a country where, unlike England for example, the bourgeoisie traditionally shows a significant urban anchorage. As a result, a socially selective, "landlordist" or (Piketty 2019) image of the countryside quickly took hold in public debate.

In the end, the reality of the urban exodus was hardly confirmed two years later: not only were there no mass departures, but urban areas also remained territories of arrival. [1] On the other hand, real estate professionals recognize a transactional frenzy as they emerge from the initial confinement, particularly in spaces that had been relatively disinvested until then. It is this new mobility of capital and its territorial effects that we wish to address here. If the spatialization of capital within the city is well known, in its material and symbolic dimensions (Adam and Comby 2020), how can we read this explosion of transactions outside the city? Is it merely a temporary and cyclical reinvestment of "Covid savings", to use the words of the trade press? Or is it a sign of a new spatialization of capitalism, going beyond the classic logic of opportunistic investment of surplus urban capital? Finally, what role does the recent narrative of urban exodus play in this exurbanization of capital?

The mirage of urban exodus

The expression "urban exodus" mirrors that of "rural exodus," referring to the massive depopulation of the countryside in favor of cities, which had been providing industrial employment since the 19th century. These flows were entirely governed by the market: it was only at the cost of a powerful State planning strategy, which reached its apogee in the 1960s and 1970s, that the dualization of national space could be stemmed.

Although complete censuses from the French statistics bureau, INSEE, are not yet available, numerous partial data (such as school enrolments or notary data on real estate transactions) and the initial results of a national multi-disciplinary research project clearly indicate that this "urban exodus", understood as mass migration from the cities to the countryside, has not taken place. Admittedly, the focus on real estate transactions prevents us from capturing the full range of residential mobility, which is traditionally dominated by tenants. But the fact remains that it is financial flows, far more than human flows, that have exploded since the first confinement, reaching 1,130,000 transactions at the end of May 2021, "a record level since 2000." Economic rationality provides two explanatory factors: on the one hand, in times of crisis, financial investment appears riskier (as evidenced by the stock market crash of March 2020 during the first containment) and stone regains its role as a safe haven. Secondly, historically low interest rates have encouraged households to take on more debt for their property purchases.

A spatially selective relocation of capital

As in the case of the rural exodus, the role played by the market in the current spatial evolution is striking. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the human and financial flows seen over the past two years have above all reinforced the main urban form to emerge from the neoliberal turn in French housing policy in the 1970s: peri-urbanization (Rousseau 2015). Indeed, what has been happening above all over the past two years is a considerable increase in transactions (and prices) in the airy suburban fringes of metropolises, but also in satellite towns, sometimes located several dozen kilometers from the centers. In other words, the flows observed since the pandemic have initially taken the form of a consolidation and extension of the suburban model, particularly among households with young children looking for a small garden. Yet, as the climate threat becomes clearer and energy prices rise, the increasingly remote housing estate has clearly shown its social and environmental limits—as highlighted by the Gilets Jaunes.

A few dozen kilometers further afield, in some rural areas close to metropolises, attractive, well-serviced countryside has seen executives take advantage of telecommuting to live in dual residences, a fact that has been abundantly reported in the media. However, not only do they make a modest contribution to local development, but these "rurbanites" don’t settle in the most remote areas: they simply contribute to the further spread of suburbanization.

And even further from the metropolis? A growing number of working people have left the city for good, this time to, in their own words, "change their lives" by moving to rural areas and developing a new activity (farming, crafts, etc.). But this is merely the acceleration of the fifth wave of neo-ruralists identified by Catherine Rouvière (2016), which is characterized by its division between a "civic" current (politicized but pragmatic neo-peasants, part of a collective ecological transition) and an "autarkic current" (a libertarian and radical movement that favors clandestine or nomadic lifestyles).

As far as the former are concerned, it’s far from certain that the acceleration in their settlement, effectively observed since the first confinement, will be perennial, so random are the results of these personal bifurcations (Chevalier and Ichard 2018). Furthermore, far from the areas favored by executives and retirees, some landlocked hinterlands are experiencing an acceleration—by definition difficult to quantify—of invisible flows of the "new autarkic" type. This is the case, for example, in the Cévennes region, where a growing number of poor nomads who have broken away from the metropolitan way of life (living in trucks, light housing) or eco-anxious people who are coping with the climate crisis either autonomously or collectively, have quietly arrived on the scene. But a new profile is now swelling this "pirate" current (ibid.): people convinced of the imminence of an insoluble social crisis in the big cities, and who spread an anxiety-inducing conspiracy climate.

Multiple residences for some; a housing crisis for others

The observation of mobility through real estate transactions reveals a dissociation between the latter and the mobility of people. Once the euphoria of the first few months had passed, the host territories were quickly disillusioned: houses that had been on the market for a long time were finally sold, but the shutters were not opened all year round. For many buyers, it is all about taking advantage of the amenities of each residence at the best possible time: sunny days in the country, mild winters by the sea, sociability and medical appointments in town... all facilitated by temporary rentals via platforms like Airbnb, which help pay utilities and even generate additional income. Instead of occupying one or two homes on a seasonal basis (the summer months, for example), households with this type of strategy take several homes off the residential market, particularly the open rental sector.

Brittany is exemplary in this respect. In this region, which was spared the first wave of Covid and is relatively unaffected by heat peaks, property prices had already been rising for several years. After the initial containment, speculation exploded. Speculation is manifesting itself in new behaviours, such as purchases without visits, without negotiation, with a view to rapid resale, or the purchase and construction of second homes and/or short-term rentals. The forced integration of medium-sized coastal towns (in départements such as Côtes-d’Armor and Finistère) into the orbit of central metropolitan areas is accompanied by a massive phenomenon of relegation. At the start of the new academic year, students discover that studios are now rented on a short-term seasonal basis. As a result, the middle classes are retreating to the inner suburbs. As for low-income workers, they are relegated further and further into the hinterland, evoking the flight of populations driven out by the processes of African megapolization. Yet the economy of the coastal region, which is largely residential (retirees), depends to a large extent on personal and health services. But for a working-class person, moving ten kilometers away from home can jeopardize the end of the month, particularly in the context of rising fuel prices. In short, the explosion of these flows is highly problematic on environmental, social, economic and political levels.

An extension to the rentier sector

This development can only be understood in the broader context of the slow (re)constitution of a rentier society (Piketty 2013). And yet, this society remains largely anchored in the metropolises. As a sign of this structural inequality, a quarter of households living in France own two-thirds of the housing stock owned by private individuals; and a high number of these multiple owners are concentrated in the heart of metropolises. On the whole, they invest in locations deemed profitable, generally those with a good reputation. The reputation of France in decline had been particularly damaged by two decades of praise for metropolization, to which was added a decade of commercial decline (after the liberalization of supermarkets in 2008) and austerity (particularly affecting rural public services: post offices, railway stations, etc.). A new narrative was therefore needed to change the image of the peripheries and adapt it to the desires of investors now faced with closed borders.

The "urban exodus", with its strong symbolic charge, provided this narrative. Relayed by the national media, which, after three decades of glorifying metropolization (and gentrification), have done an about-face, the urban exodus narrative carries with it a set of (socially selective) values to be found in spaces that were previously widely seen as unprofitable. Many metropolitan investors decided to bet on these new frontiers, preserved from the health crisis and deemed "safe" from the point of view of the climate crisis. Large swathes of Brittany and the South-West, the new financial Far West, have now joined the orbit of France’s major metropolises, driven by massive investment from both regional capitals and the Île-de-France region.

So, while cities have clearly not emptied of their inhabitants to the more or less urbanized countryside, it does seem that urban capital, in surplus since the health crisis, has found a new outlet—a new spatial fix (Harvey 1981). Against a backdrop of crises, and after decades of global circulation and anchoring in metropolises, particularly in standardized and international facilities (Delage 2020), investment strategies are being "respatialized" not only towards the countryside, but also within national borders. The narrative of urban exodus thus provides the "critical infrastructure" (Zukin 1989) necessary for image change. Long reserved for metropolises, this imagery proves crucial in inflating the exchange value of capital’s new landing places, thereby creating the conditions for a new rent outside the metropolis. But this narrative does not affect all territories in the same way. While it leads to the overheating of areas already endowed with a positional rent and an exchange value, and the drying up of narrow real estate markets in desirable new rural areas, it conversely leaves out other areas lacking the desired amenities (industrial or intensively farmed countryside, declining towns...). What’s more, these investments concern only a small proportion of the population, with a gradient between strategies of pure profitability and multi-generational family strategies, where the sharing of living spaces takes the place of inheritance. However, the strategies of this minority affect the entire housing chain.

In favor of an urgent regulation of land rent

In the final analysis, the mirage of the urban exodus is nothing more than the umpteenth magical thought of regional planning delegated to the market. The "rebalancing" thesis [2] demographic and therefore territorial rebalancing under the effect of the pandemic [3] might seem full of promise, particularly for economically depressed areas. However, it would be illusory to think that these human and, above all, financial flows could rebalance territorial inequalities.

On the contrary, what would reduce them would be a strategy of public investment in the productive economy (for example, by targeting the land that is widely available in declining France to decarbonize the economy), combined with a clean break with the invisible austerity implemented over the last fifteen years: targeted investment in health, housing and training (what the British call "fundamental economics"). There is a growing demand for market regulation on the part of a population that is currently becoming politicized as a result of the acute housing crisis. Taxation of second homes, restrictions on Airbnb, resident permits making the purchase of a property conditional on having lived in the area for at least a year, etc. On the contrary, the debate is polarized by a radicalized, neoliberal and populist right wing, which has clearly understood its interest in exploiting resentment by simply promoting a very vague (and untraceable) "demetropolization". Three years after the spectacular Yellow Vests revolt, it’s highly likely that the relegation caused by the so-called "urban exodus" will lead to major new conflicts in the future.


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  • Zukin, S. 1989. Loft Living. Culture and Capital in Urban Change, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

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To cite this article:

Aurélie Delage & Max Rousseau & translated by Oliver Waine, ““Urban Exodus” as an Extension of the Rentier Sector”, Metropolitics, 15 September 2023. URL :

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